AUDACIOUS PRAYERS

And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. [Hebrews 11:6 (RSV)]

Steamboat Ski - COIt was a dreary winter day when the entire congregation exited the church into a weed-filled field. Like the Israelites, we were armed with horns, only ours were those silly blowout noisemakers seen at children’s birthday parties. Silently, we marched until we’d circled the muddy patch of ground seven times. Anyone observing us from the highway surely thought us foolish as we raised those noisemakers to our lips, blew hard and then cheered. Unlike the Israelites who marched around Jericho so God would knock down walls, we marched around that field to show our faith that God would erect walls for us!

That was a little more than five years ago in the Colorado mountain town where we spent our winters. Armed only with big prayers and bold faith, that church built a 15,000 square-foot Family Life Center. At its dedication last September, the congregation was again given noisemakers; when the service ended, the horns sounded as they celebrated God’s love, grace, and amazing provision.

Erecting that building wasn’t an easy task—blueprints were drawn and redrawn, delay after delay occurred, the red tape seemed never ending, and everything was more complicated and often more expensive than expected. The church never lost faith in the project nor did they cut back on serving God’s people. They faithfully continued their discipleship, benevolence, education, community outreach and missions work while raising additional funds for their expansion. This ski and ranch town is not a wealthy one and many are employed only seasonally. Nevertheless, they generously stepped out in faith, shared their resources, made sacrifices, and trusted God to provide. The pastor is fond of reminding his flock that God honors audacious prayers because audacious prayers honor God. The Family Life Center is a testament to that statement—when the people dared to dream and pray big, instead of walls falling, they were raised!

Picture the audacity of the bleeding woman who was so sure Jesus could heal her that she pushed her way through the crowd just to touch the hem of His robe. Imagine the audacity of Joshua asking God to stop the sun and moon from moving until the Israelites had defeated their enemies. When Elijah prayed for both drought and rain, he made some audacious predictions to Ahab. Like the bleeding woman and Joshua, he would have looked a fool if God had not answered those prayers. God came through for them all because their big bold prayers honored an even bigger God.

We insult our amazing Father with trivial prayers; they’re like asking famed chef Gordon Ramsey to make only a peanut butter sandwich. Inconsequential prayers imply we’re not sure He really can do anything that great. Courageous faith means bold audacious prayers and stepping out for God’s kingdom. Because they prayed, believed, and acted on their belief, that mountain church saw our awesome God provide in miraculous ways. He can do far more than we can imagine or ask and we must never doubt His power. Perhaps God will say, “No!” but, if we never ask, He can’t say, “Yes!” God honors audacious prayers because audacious prayers honor Him!

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it [a demon] out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” [Matthew 17:19-20 (RSV)]

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ARE WE READY?

Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God! Fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills. Straighten the curves, and smooth out the rough places. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. The Lord has spoken! [Isaiah 40:3 (NLT)]

christmas ornamentYesterday was the first Sunday in Advent – the church season leading up to Christmas. Advent, coming from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” or “arrival,” is a time of preparation. Back in the 4th century in Spain and Gaul (Western Europe), Advent was a season of preparation for the baptism of new Christians on Epiphany (January 6). On that day, they celebrated not just the gifts of the Magi, but also Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and His first miracle at Cana. The forty days leading up to Epiphany were to be spent in penance, prayer and fasting. By the 6th century, Advent was tied to the coming of Jesus — but to His promised second coming rather than His first. By the Middle Ages, however, Advent was tied to the celebration of Jesus’ first coming. Today, Advent is a time we both commemorate Christ’s first coming and anticipate His second. It’s a time of preparation both for Christmas, when Jesus came as a servant and a sacrifice, and for His return, when He will come as a conquering King.

Indeed, most of us use the four weeks of Advent as a time of preparation. But for what are we preparing? Rather than readying our hearts for Christ, we’re making lists and checking them twice, scouring flyers for the best sales, decorating our homes and yards, planning parties, cooking our favorite recipes, trimming the tree, wrapping packages, addressing Christmas cards, and shipping boxes, all of which have little or nothing to do with that first Christmas when God came into our chaotic world in the village of Bethlehem. Moreover, none of those activities have anything to do with anticipating His return.

We have four weeks to focus on Christ’s coming. During this time, let’s remember how the Jews longed for the promised Messiah and, recognizing mankind’s need for a savior, let’s focus on Jesus’s incarnation and answer to that prayer. May we also look forward to Christ’s second coming—a time when peace and justice will prevail and there will be neither sorrow nor tears. We must never allow our holiday preparations to keep us from preparing our hearts for the promises that Christ brings to our lives.

The question isn’t “Are we ready for Christmas?” The question is, “Are we ready for Christ?”

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. [Revelation 21:4 (NLT)]

In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all. [Isaiah 11:6 (NLT)]

An old abbot was fond of saying, “The devil is always the most active on the highest feast days.” … The supreme trick of Old Scratch is to have us so busy decorating, preparing food, practicing music and cleaning in preparation for the feast of Christmas that we actually miss the coming of Christ. Hurt feelings, anger, impatience, injured egos—the list of clouds that busyness creates to blind us to the birth can be long, but it is familiar to us all. [Edward Hays (A Pilgrim’s Almanac)]

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THE CHAIR

What sorrow awaits those who look to Egypt for help, trusting their horses, chariots, and charioteers and depending on the strength of human armies instead of looking to the Lord, the Holy One of Israel. [Isaiah 31:1 (NLT)]

The best-equipped army cannot save a king, nor is great strength enough to save a warrior. Don’t count on your warhorse to give you victory—for all its strength, it cannot save you. [Psalm 33:16-17 (NLT)]

Lake LouiseThe small chair looked quite inviting but there was a note on it: “Broken—do not use.” That note has been resting on the same chair for several years. Had the chair been mine, it would have been repaired or at least hidden out of the way. As it is now, the chair is useless and an invitation to disaster. Just a slight breeze might blow the warning off the chair; the next person to come along could sit there and end up sprawled on the floor surrounded by splintered wood.

In contrast to the precarious antique chair at my friend’s house, is the large leather arm chair in our family room. It’s not there for looks—it’s there for support and comfort. Oversized and well-built, it’s strong enough to hold my weight and that of all the grands as they pile on it with me. It’s durable, comfortable, welcoming and dependable.

Some people depend on things as fragile as that broken chair—things that look nice but can’t be trusted like wealth, career, appearance, possessions, power, contacts, intelligence, or fame. They may appear sturdier than that broken chair but, like it, they can easily shatter and collapse when we need them most. Our circumstances can change in an instant and what we had yesterday may not be here tomorrow. The Old Testament is filled with stories showing the danger of relying on the wrong things. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah suffered for their dependence on idols, other nations, and themselves rather than God; we will, too. When we depend on anything as weak as a rickety old chair, eventually it will collapse and we’ll be left to pick up the broken pieces. As for me, I’d rather depend on a God who is like our arm chair—strong, steadfast and indestructible! Ours is a rock-solid God who won’t fail us, no matter how much weight we place on Him.

On who or what do you rely? Is it reliable….as reliable as God?

But the Lord watches over those who fear him, those who rely on his unfailing love. He rescues them from death and keeps them alive in times of famine. We put our hope in the Lord. He is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. Let your unfailing love surround us, Lord, for our hope is in you alone. [Psalm 33:19-22 (NLT)]

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BOTH SEEN AND HEARD

And the angel also said, “You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the Lord has heard your cry of distress. … Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me.”  [Genesis 16:11,13a (NLT)]

sparrowThe slave woman Hagar felt invisible. It was Sarah who was loved by Abraham; Hagar was just a substitute womb. Of course, Hagar wasn’t entirely blameless. Once pregnant, she taunted her mistress with her fertility and Sarah retaliated by treating her harshly. Abraham washed his hands of the whole thing when he told Sarah the way she treated (or mistreated) the maid was her business, not his. After all, Hagar was little more than a brood mare; the powerless victim of Sarah’s scheme, she meant nothing to Abraham so she ran away. Invisible, unappreciated and unloved—she sat by a spring of water in the wilderness. The angel of the Lord heard and saw her, comforted her, gave her hope of a future and sent her back to her mistress. From then on, Hagar referred to the Lord as El-Roi: the God who sees me.

Fourteen years later, Sarah bore a son—Isaac. Animosity and jealousy between the women and sibling rivalry between the boys made a bad situation even worse. Now that the promised son was born, Sarah demanded that Abraham get rid of both Hagar and Ishmael. Although Abraham was upset about losing his first son, Hagar continued to be invisible, unappreciated and unloved by him. After strapping some food and water on her back, he sent mother and son off into the wilderness. Their water supply was soon depleted and, at death’s door, Ishmael lay under a bush and cried. His name meant “God shall hear” and, indeed, God did. Hearing her boy’s cries, God again reassured the distraught woman of her son’s future and opened her eyes so that she saw a well and a means of survival.

We have a God who sees and hears us. If He could see an invisible unloved slave woman in the wilderness and hear her unwanted son’s cries, He can see and hear us. If He knows when a sparrow falls to the ground, He knows when we need Him. It may seem that we’re invisible and unheard by those around us but we are never invisible or unheard by Him. He will open our eyes to possibilities and give us hope and a future.

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. Matthew 10:29-31 (NLT)

But in my distress I cried out to the Lord; yes, I prayed to my God for help. He heard me from his sanctuary; my cry to him reached his ears. [Psalm 18:6 (NLT)]

Why should I feel discouraged, Why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart feel lonely, And long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? A constant friend is He;
His eye is on the sparrow And I know He watches me.
[“His Eye Is On the Sparrow” by Civilla D. Martin]

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MARA

Monarch butterfly - queen anne's laceBut she said, “Don’t call me Naomi; call me Bitter. The Strong One has dealt me a bitter blow. I left here full of life, and God has brought me back with nothing but the clothes on my back. Why would you call me Naomi? God certainly doesn’t. The Strong One ruined me.” [Ruth 1:20-21 (MSG)]

The final lesson of learning to be independent – widowhood…is the hardest lesson of all. [Anne Morrow Lindberg]

When we first meet her in the book of Ruth, the widowed Naomi does not seem the sort of unpleasant meddlesome mother-in-law about whom jokes are made; she is much loved and respected by her daughters-in-law. After great tragedy strikes their family, Naomi’s widowed daughter-in-law Ruth chooses to leave home, return with her to Israel, and adopt the God of the Israelites. Naomi must have been a very special woman to have a daughter-in-law so determined to stay at her side. By the time the widows arrive in Bethlehem, however, we see another side to the older woman. “Don’t call me Naomi,” she says, telling people to call her Mara, meaning bitter. For Naomi and Ruth, circumstances improve when Ruth meets and marries Boaz and presents her mother-in-law with a grandchild. Unfortunately, not every widow has a Boaz to act as her redeemer and provide a happy ending to the story.

I have a group of widowed friends who, if comparing tragic sob stories with Naomi, could put hers to shame. They lost as much or more and have endured as many hardships and challenges as did Naomi. Nevertheless, in spite of having their lives turned upside down by their losses, none of them would call themselves bitter. While they have their moments of complaint, sorrow and loneliness, their faith strengthens them and allows them to face their new reality with an eagerness and joy that does not depend on outer circumstances. Their grief hasn’t left them bitter; if anything, it has made them better. They radiate a sense of peace, purpose and zest for life because their redeemer isn’t a relative who has chosen to take care of them; their Redeemer is Jesus Christ!

I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to lose a spouse but I imagine it’s like being ripped in half. Someday, either my husband or I will face the grief and uncertainty that comes with widowhood. When the “we” of our lives becomes just “me,” loneliness, anger and resentment can easily follow. We can become bitter or allow our faith to fill us with hope. Death may take away a spouse, but Jesus will take that spouse away from death! I pray that, in our grief, we will be strengthened by our faith in God’s purpose and receive the consolation offered by our Comforter, the Holy Spirit.

Most loving God, you know the pain and sorrow of death; mercifully hear our prayer for those who mourn the death of their beloved. The nights are lonely and the days are too long. Comfort them and bring an end to the days of tears. Bless them and bring an end to their days of sorrow. Renew them with the joy of life and bring to an end their days of mourning. Let the bond of love which you have for your people be the foundation of their hope that love never ends and that precious moments with our beloved are forever held dear in our hearts. Amen. [Vienna Cobb Anderson]

The Friend, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send at my request, will make everything plain to you. He will remind you of all the things I have told you. I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught. [John 14:26-17 (MSG)]

You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. [Matthew 5:4 (MSG)]

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OUR FATHER

Mute swan - cygnetsPray like this: Our Father in heaven…” [Matthew 6:9a (NLT)]

Throughout Scripture, God is called by several ancient names that reflect His character: El Shaddai (God Almighty), El Olam (The Everlasting God), El Elyon (The Most High God), and El Roi, (The God Who Sees). He is Yahweh-Jireh (The Lord Will Provide), Yahweh-Rapha (The Lord Who Heals), and Yahweh-Roh (Our Shepherd). We also find references to God as both a Rock and a King. Yet, with all these ways to address God, when Jesus taught us how to pray, He chose to address God with the words “Our Father.”

As I pondered calling on our Father in prayer, I recalled an episode that occurred more than twenty-five years ago when two of our children attended college together. They went camping with a group of friends and enjoyed beers around the campfire. In the wee hours of the morning, the group was awakened by a police officer who breathalyzed them all. Unfortunately, the results indicated they’d been drinking and, since all were all under 21, each received a ticket for “illegal possession of alcohol by consumption” (a Class C misdemeanor). My children’s friends were amazed when they immediately called their dad, admitted their mistake, and asked his advice. My daughter’s response to her friends’ shock at their quick call was simple: “If I can’t call my father, who can I call?”

Our children called their father not because he paid their tuition and provided for them or even because he has a law degree. Even knowing he would expect them to face the consequences of their foolishness, they called on their father because he loves them! He’s their daddy and they are his children and they knew that, in spite of his disappointment in them, he would lovingly forgive and wisely counsel them.

“Our Father,” said Jesus. We can address God as Creator, Most High, Shepherd, Rock, Healer or any of a dozen other impersonal ways but it’s like calling on someone great and powerful; we know of Him but we don’t know Him. Prayer isn’t like scheduling an appointment to present a petition before a foreign king; it is an intimate conversation with someone we love who also loves us. It’s like my children coming to their daddy, confessing their error, and asking for his guidance. We appeal to God in love, not in fear of His anger or even awe of His power. God adopted us when we accepted Christ—we are His children, His heirs, and we can come boldly before Him with our prayers. That our unchanging, sovereign, all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present, infinite God desires a relationship with us and wants us to address Him as “Our Father” is a privilege and an honor—let us never take it lightly.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. [Romans 8:14-16 (NLT)]

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. [Romans 1:7b (NLT)]

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